A SECRETIVE ministry with direct links to Gloria Jean's Coffees and the Hillsong Church has been deceiving troubled young women into signing over months of their lives to a program that offers scant medical or psychiatric care, instead using Bible studies and exorcisms to treat mental illness.
Government agencies such as Centrelink have also been drawn into the controversy, as residents are required to transfer their benefits to Mercy Ministries. There are also allegations that the group receives a carers payment to look after the young women.
Mercy Ministries says 96 young women have "graduated" from its program since its inception in 2001. But many have been expelled without warning and with no follow up or support.
Three former residents who have felt the full force of Mercy's questionable programs are blowing the whistle on its emotionally cruel and medically unproven techniques, detailing abuse including exorcisms, "separation contracts" between girls who became friends, and harsh discipline for those who broke the rules.
Naomi Johnson, Rhiannon Canham-Wright and Megan Smith (Megan asked to use an assumed name) went into Mercy Ministries independent young women, and came out broken and suicidal, believing, as Mercy staff had told them repeatedly, that they were possessed by demons and that Satan controlled them.
Only careful psychological and psychiatric care over several years brought them back from the edge.
Taking in girls and women aged 16 to 28, Mercy Ministries claims to offer residents support from "psychologists, general practitioners, dietitians, social workers, [and] career counsellers". These claims are made on its website, and the programs are promoted through Gloria Jean's cafes throughout Australia.
But these former residents say no medical or psychological services were provided - just an occasional, monitored trip to a GP, where the consultation takes place in the presence of a Mercy Ministries staff member or volunteer.
Instead, the program is focused on prayer, Christian counselling and expelling demons from in and around the young women, who say they begged Mercy Ministries to let them get medical help for the conditions they were suffering, which included bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and anorexia.
The Ministry didn't bother to deny the charges; instead, they fell back to the standard woo claim of offering "a holistic client-focused approach"--which essentially means "stuff that doesn't work".
Psychiatrists are likening this ministry to a cult and say that it's just going to damage people if they don't get proper treatment:
THE Christian-based counselling program run by Mercy Ministries has been condemned by psychiatrists, who have labelled it cult-like and warned that it puts the lives of young women at risk.
"What an organisation like this is doing is quite high risk - high risk for the young women and high risk for these [Bible college] students to be taking on these complex cases," said Louise Newman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Newcastle and a former director of the NSW Institute of Psychiatry.
"There is always the potential of self harm and possible suicidal behaviour."
Placing young women with mental health issues in an isolated house with little contact with their families or qualified medical and psychiatric care could exacerbate, rather than alleviate, their symptoms, she said.
People with mental illness had long been vulnerable to cult-like movements run under the guise of churches or religious groups such as Mercy Ministries, said Ian Hickie, the executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney.
"They are one of the groups most preyed upon by those fundamentalist religions. You have to worry about any group that takes in young women without review - the more secretive, the less open to review, the more likely abuse is to happen, that has been the repeated history of closed institutions and cult-like groups throughout the ages."
And this article has a lot more detailed accounts of what the three women who've stepped forward went through at Mercy. A snippet:
Counselling involved working through a white folder containing pre-scripted prayers.
"Most of the staff were current Bible studies or Bible college students, and that is it, if anything. You just cannot play around with mental illness when you do not know what you are doing. Even professionals will acknowledge that it is a huge responsibility working in that field, and that is people who have six years, eight years university study behind them."
And while there was nothing that was formally termed "exorcism" in the Sydney house, Naomi was forced to stand in front of two counsellors while they prayed and spoke in tongues around her. In her mind, it was an exorcism. "I felt really stupid just standing there - they weren't helping me with the things going on in my head. I would ask staff for tools on how to cope with the urges to self harm … and the response was: 'What scriptures are you standing on? Read your Bible."
Johnson had grown up in a Christian family; her belief in God was not the issue; anorexia and self harm were. "A major sticking point was when they told me I needed to receive the holy Spirit in me and speak in tongues, to raise my hands in worship songs and jump up and down on the spot in fast songs. I told them that I really didn't understand how jumping up and down to a fast song at church was going to fix the anorexia, and yet that was a big, big sticking point, because it showed I was being resistant, cynical and holding back."
And for balance's sake, here's Mercy's reply to some of the allegations:
The executive manager of programs with Mercy Ministries, Judy Watson, is proud of the organisation's achievements, and rejects the claim that there are no staff qualified in psychiatry, psychology or counselling.
It appears that there is one registered psychologist at Mercy's Sydney house, although the Herald understands that the little contact she has with the residents is around scriptures, not psychological care. She did not respond to a request for an interview.
In a written statement, Watson said: "Mercy Ministries counselling staff are required to have tertiary education and qualifications in counselling, social work or psychology. Staff also participate in externally provided supervision from psychologists."
Yet she was unable to detail what qualifications each staff member had, or how many had qualifications beyond their one registered psychologist.
On the allegations that young women are denied medical and psychiatric care, Watson had this to say: "Residents' mental and physical health concerns are taken very seriously, and appropriate treatment is made available.
"Mercy Ministries provides a range of services to young women in the program. Mercy Ministries provides services through either health professionals employed by Mercy Ministries, subcontracted to provide services to residents at Mercy Ministries, or taken to specialists at their practice."
In short, empty claims without any evidence to back them up.